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30 September, 2012

(Me being lazy, you will first want to read Men as Dumpsters as I won’t be repeating much about what are called “containing” functions.)

 So you want your man to talk to you?  I’m going to go way out on a rotting limb and suggest that there aren’t many women who really, truly want that.  However, for those who are certain that they do, here are some tips for helping that to happen.


 Containing functions count here.  If your man detects in the slightest that what he’s telling you is causing you distress, he will shut down to protect you from that distress.  You will need to be able to take in, and hold, the content of what he’s saying along with the embedded emotions.


 If anything you say smacks of “You don’t really feel that way, do you?,” your man will suspect he’s causing you distress or that you just don’t want to believe he feels the way he does* and will shut down.

 * We all set up in our heads what are called “object representations” of other people.  Those representations have attached to them a multitude of characteristics.  Some are based on sound perceptions of reality, others are based on what we want or need the person to be.  Likely without any actual understanding of that process, your man will still try to protect you by not disturbing your image of what you need him to be vs. who he actually is.  Be willing to change and accept the reality-based object representation rather than take any action to avoid your present image to be disturbed.


 You wanted to hear from him, right?  If that’s the case, don’t switch the conversation to how you feel while he’s sharing.  If anything you say smacks of:  “That’s nothing.  Let me tell you what happened to me, how I feel and my suffering,” he’ll shut down, assuming either he’s upsetting you or you didn’t really want him to talk to you in the first place … you wanted to talk to him.


 Men know all too well that women talk to each other about their men.  If your man suspects in the least that any vulnerability, potentially perceived weakness or sensitive information about him is going to be shared with your female friends (God help you if ever share his confidences with a male acquaintance; if he finds out you will never, ever get anything out of him again), he’ll clam up tighter than Fort Knox and you may never get him to expose himself to you.  Containing functions are especially critical here.  You have to be willing to hold safe what he shares.


 Men, of course, have to avoid all of the above pitfalls as well.  While I’ve confined the above to just getting your man to open up about his feelings, dreams, fears and the like, much of what it takes to maintain a relationship requires both skill and effort on both your parts.  However, if you truly want to get into deep, meaningful conversations (the most loaded scenarios having to do, of course, with the relationship), you’ll need first to avoid shut-downs, denials, reversals and violations of confidence/trust.  That may be an unfair burden to women, but men are so constructed and raised that they come with “sharing baggage” of which they need to be relieved if you ever want truly to know who they are and how they feel.

 Pretty much all men are “sensitive”, however hidden that fact may be.  Sensitivity comes with its risks for males and male handling of same can look crude, uncaring or even cold.  Look for the elements of the male imperative to protect which are often hidden in how they interact.


I once had a male client who had been referred to the community mental health clinic where I was working due to domestic violence.  He was an unusually astute observer of his own interactions.  He noted that things would click along well for a while and then, out of the blue, one day he’d come home from work to be assailed about all of his wife’s tribulations, the misbehavior of the children, crappy neighbor antics and the like.  He’d hit a point where he could contain no more and would explode, trashing the house and not infrequently getting physical with his wife.  He observed that, upon doing so, she’d apparently become sweet for perhaps weeks at a time.  He asked “Does she really want me to be like that?”

While there was a lot more going on in his counseling than what I’m about to describe, a little “prescribing the symptom” proved helpful.  I suggested that the next time he arrived home to such a barrage that he monitor himself and, if he found his emotions escalating, he go on a fake rampage … knock over some furniture, yell, etc. while actually trying to avoid any actual damage to anything.

 He gave it a try.  On the first such try, his wife settled down immediately and he had to go out in the garage because he was unable to control his mirth at how well that worked and he didn’t want her to hear him laughing, thus destroying the appearance of him being out of control.

 There were deeper issues, of course.  He had been rather severely abused physically as a kid, and she sexually as a child.  Getting to them embracing each other’s pain and how it interfered with their relationship was a longish but productive pilgrimage.  Until then, she could not contain her own turmoil and would try to get it into him.  Once successful at getting that turmoil into him, he could not contain both that and his own.  Being male, he didn’t have the relationship connections to move the burden along and would act out.  The ruse employed allowed her to feel she’d unloaded while he was able to avoid getting more dumped into him than he could handle.


From → Social Work

  1. suzemagoo permalink

    Context does matter. You have deep sympathies from me for how talk therapy has so often been severely truncated by its much more lucrative (for CEO’s, stockholders et al) rival, the “instant fix” medication. It has effectively rendered the psychology branch of American healthcare just about worthless in certain settings and we are all paying that price.

    I am pleased to hear there were such positive side effects to the manipulation. But I didn’t ask a rhetorical question, actually. I wish to know if the mechanism was eventually dismantled or replaced and if so how or by what? Was that part of it even addressed?

    • It’s been nearly 30 years so my memory is a bit hazy on timing, but after a while the man told his wife what he had been doing. That, in part, is what led to her decision to seek therapy. Though from a lower socio-economic background, they were both quite intelligent and capable of insight with a bit of guidance. The cat was out of the bag and certainly the man’s manipulation was an early part of his wife’s discussion of her “presenting problem”. In the case of this manipulation, it wasn’t profit that was the problem. It was decreasing funding of mental health in the public sector.

  2. suzemagoo permalink

    I am curious. How did you justify the use of a clearly dishonest tactic to the wife or was the ruse left intact with the husband left to carry the lie? All duplicity comes with a cost. I would not have been willing to use such a technique and if offered one, would have immediately questioned the therapist’s ability to help guide anyone to their authentic self.

    • I fully understand your point and share your concerns — and the tactic I used would have been far from a first choice under different circumstances. Community mental health services in the county I worked for were going in the tanks and individual sessions were limited to a maximum of eight — hardly enough to provide the man with a complete psychosocial laundry job. My personal belief is that nothing short of long term, ego-analytic, object relations-oriented therapy is likely to lead to true personal growth. Brief therapy models all take nasty short cuts which range from manipulative to bullshit (I’ll take some flak for that pronouncement). The sad thing is that the man would have been very workable in long term therapy. He had beautifully crafted, symbolic dreams and was what psychoanalyst Robert Langs would have called a type B communicator — very conducive to such therapy. The presenting problem was domestic violence with eight sessions to end it and the tactic, albeit sleazy, worked (along with drugs, an even worse solution). Manipulation aside, what’s not to like about protecting his wife and ending his self-loathing for being such a monster? If it makes you feel any better, disrupting the dynamic led the wife to come to the clinic to seek help. For her, there was a group available (longer term group therapy, being “cost effective”, was okay). That, in turn, led to a much-improved relationship for both of them.

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